A poignant, funny, blazingly original debut novel about sisterhood, the tantalizing dream of America, and the secret histories and hilarious eccentricities of families everywhere.
In the wake of their mother’s mysterious death, Linno and Anju are raised in Kerala by their father, Melvin, a reluctant Christian prone to bouts of dyspepsia, and their grandmother, the superstitious and strong-willed Ammachi. When Anju wins a scholarship to a prestigious school in America, she seizes the opportunity, even though it means betraying her sister. In New York, Anju is plunged into the elite world of her Hindu American host family, led by a well-known television personality and her fiendishly ambitious son, a Princeton drop out determined to make a documentary about Anju’s life. But when Anju finds herself ensnared by her own lies, she runs away and lands a job as a bikini waxer in a Queens beauty salon.
Meanwhile, back in Kerala, Linno is undergoing a transformation of her own, rejecting the wealthy blind suitor with whom her father had sought to arrange her marriage and using her artistic gifts as a springboard to entrepreneurial success. When Anju goes missing, Linno strikes out farther still, with a scheme to procure a visa so that she can travel to America to search for her vanished sister.
The convergence of their journeys—toward each other, toward America, toward a new understanding of self and country, and toward a heartbreaking mystery long buried in their shared past—brings to life a predicament that is at once modern and timeless: the hunger for independence and the longing for home; the need to preserve the past and the yearning to break away from it. Tania James combines the gifts of an old-fashioned storyteller—engrossing drama, flawless control of plot, beautifully drawn characters, surprises around every turn—with a voice that is fresh and funny and powerfully alive with the dilemmas of modern life. She brings grace, humor, deep feeling, and the command of a born novelist to this marvelous debut. About the Author
Tania James was raised in Louisville, Kentucky, and is a graduate of Harvard and Columbia universities. She has published her work in One Story and The New York Times. She lives in New York City.
Exclusive Essay: Tania James on Sisterhood and Atlas of Unknowns
This book is primarily about sisters, a subject I know something about, as I have two, an older and a younger. For a lengthy stretch of childhood, the Older and I attended the Harold Roberts School of Dance, where we were packaged as a tap duet, and while other groups boasted sexy titles--The Jazzettes, for example, or Spice--my sister and I bore a name as dull and durable as our school shoes. We were simply, lamely, The James Sisters.
The James Sisters began their tenure at the ages of 7 and 9. I spent many of those youngest years as a pudgy counterpart to the Older (or, you could say, she was my lanky counterpart), and the visual effect, in pictures, evokes Abbott and Costello, or Cee-lo and Dangermouse, but in leotards and feathers. We were, however, serious about tap dance. Several times a week, we spun, flapped, and travel-backed across a linoleum patch of floor in our basement, smacking into walls, smiling blindly. Inevitably, the practice would end in a fight, and the Older would storm away and flop into a nearby armchair while I massaged my blisters and fantasized about a tapless adulthood.
I think that the Older resented being lumped with me, moreso than I did. But we were also aware that there existed some sort of mysterious syncretism to the styles in which we danced, and the way we could, without the aid of music, fall into exactly the same rhythms and gestures. At our best, when we performed, our four shoes emitted the sounds of a single pair, which seemed a genetic asset that our competitors lacked. Only once did we each try to dance a solo piece, but neither of us turned out to be the Paul Simon we had presumed ourselves to be. We were two Garfunkels, and practicing alone was boring. So we continued with our duets and fights, repelled and drawn back again and again, for years.
My apologies if I have given the impression that this novel has anything to do with tap dance. It does not. But in the attempt to sort through the soup of influences that fed this story, a particular image--my sister and I dancing and fighting in a cold basement--floated to the surface. Of course, I can point to other influences, both literary and non-literary, ones whose connection to my novel I can better articulate, like the statue of a martyred saint holding his own head, or a Malayalam film star, or my grandmothers who perpetually wear white, or a few seconds of the documentary Sherman’s March, wherein a woman complains to the filmmaker about his constant filming: “Could you turn it off? This is important. This is not art, this is life!” And then there are the influences that have exercised their hold on my imagination in invisible ways, like the fear of facing the infinite dark of the audience, and the relief of taking my sister’s sweaty hand for a bow. I can’t say that my life is art, but life has offered a steady and generous stream from which to make it.
In this perfectly adequate tale of bicontinental love, betrayal and secrets, sisters Anju and Linno Vallara live in Kerala, India, raised by their father after their mother's apparent suicide. Crippled Linno establishes herself as a talented artist, a skill Anju ruthlessly claims as her own, passing off Linno's paintings as hers to win a scholarship to study art in New York. When Anju's dishonesty is eventually exposed, her future crumbles and she runs away, surviving only due to her friendship with Bird, a stranger who carries a key to their mother's mysterious past. Meanwhile, Linno, who once resigned herself to being her family's servant, has built a career and, despite her sister's betrayal, resolves to find Anju and bring her home. As that reunion looms, layers of lies and secrets are exposed until the reader, if not the sisters, glimpses the tangle of honesty and loyalties underpinning the story. James paints Kerala and immigrant New York with identical depth and ease, and the story is a readable balance of well-crafted plot and artful emotion. (Apr.)
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